Note: The discussion in this review assumes that the reader has seen the previous three seasons of Big Love. Therefore, if you've got some catching up to do, steer clear of reading further.
Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), the fundamentalist Mormon who's gone to great lengths to hide and protect his polygamist family, is running for political office.
Allow that to sink in for a moment; a high-profile, broadly-televised owner of a chain of family-centered Home Depot-like stores decides that pursuing a position in government is the correct path for he and his three-wife, nine-child Mormon clan. Never mind whether the decision's justified or not, which Mark Olsen, Will Scheffer and the writers of Big Love have cooked up a permissible reason for wedging it in. The trouble lies in the level of credibility within its many contrivances and questions, the big one being, "how would active mud-slingers not discover his hidden life, and early on"? It'd take some resourceful writing to make it snap together with this once delicate and emotionally-tempered peephole into a world of multifaceted relationships. Unfortunately, the execution only drags it down further, as this fourth season taps into overstated melodrama and knee-jerk, shock-value twists, which lack the accessible magnetism that once adorned the show's early soapy brilliance.
As previously stated, it's not like Bill's decision comes out of the blue. A rising politician looking to take a seat in Utah's State Senate has been boasting a crackdown agenda against the Mormon polygamist lifestyle (specifically Juniper Creek), which naturally upsets the Henrickson family. Seeing as how Bill's a powerful individual with plenty of sway, he determines that it's best for him to get into the empty seat before his opponent, doing so with the idea that he'll bring the glory of plural marriage back in the spotlight. Yes, in this modern climate, with legality firmly under question. Underneath that, Bill's still getting his out-of-state Indian casino up and running, which he passes authority over to first-wife Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) to navigate through the culturally-tetchy boardroom meetings. Between complications with a gambling establishment and a huge family that thrives on their life being kept a secret, it seems a reckless decision to send Bill into the hornet's nest of dirt-digging politics.
Big Love was already on shaky, albeit gripping ground, and it neglects to spend the time needed to double-back to its core strengths in order to justify the newfound complexity -- which gets really thick this time around. Remember, the previous season pushed the envelope of sensible storytelling, dialing up the tension around the cutthroat selling of ancient Mormon documents and the high-profile case against polygamist leader Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), ultimately leading to his demise. It featured Nicki (ChloŽ Sevigny) as an undercover agent, unplanned pregnancies, crashed cars, several attempted murders, and Bill courting a fourth wife, Ana (Branka Katic); yet it's still tethered to the show's dynamic expressive streak, showing the limits that the Henricksons endure for their socially-shunned happiness, and it still causes the audience to feel something for them, even if it's faint. The fourth season snips the tether; it knocks the commotion up several notches, while halfway turning its shoulder from both logic and the grounded, subtly intriguing relations that I found fascinating in its more intimate beginnings.
In ways, Big Love comes dangerously close to becoming a farce of itself. As it slaves away at legitimizing the fabric of this political campaign through Bill's tough hunt for endorsements and the family's obvious reservations over being "outed", the events at Juniper Creek also turn towards the bizarre. Alby's taken to ushering out commands as the "heir" to Roman Grant's throne, which involve some unexpected -- and excruciatingly ham-fisted -- new marital sealings. That'd be enough by itself, but the writers also dig deep into the satchel of Alby's blossoming homosexual tendencies to some rather turgid effects. And, in the middle of all this, Bill's parents (Frank, Bruce Dern; Lois, Grace Zabriskie) make an attempt to reconcile under odd circumstances, even though they've tried several times over to kill one another; let's just say their reunion involves murder attempts, parrots, and trips to Mexico, and leave it at that. It's as if the stereotypes have become targets for send-ups instead of boundaries within which this sensible soap-opera operates.
Yet, one could look at the previous seasons on the surface and come to the same conclusion, that all the murderous, stereotype-exploiting suspense is too far-fetched. Big Love's big issue this time around lies in the writing's inability to know when enough's enough, when it's time to stop pressing the big red button labeled "intense/shocking plot development". Instead, it just keeps hammering it, relinquishing abandon as it tries to shock instead of carefully surprise. Hectic occurrences overlap when Nicki's villainous ex-husband JJ muddles in her and Joey's lives, while Bill's ex-wife Ana conveniently falls back into the picture to stir up the campaign chaos. On top of that, the developments involving threats against Bill's casino, his back-and-forth parlay with sharp-toothed lobbyist Marilyn Descham (Sissy Spacek), the entire Mexico plot arc, hit-and-run accidents, and Alby's madness all overreach the boundaries of endurable suspension-of-disbelief. Out of the woodwork comes several single episodes with more twists-'n-turns than an entire season could handle, thrown together without a sense of balance.
There's one bright spot, though: Ginnifer Goodwin's Margene, the youngest sister-wife. Once a sheepish tagalong of the wives, she continues her rise up the ranks as an on-television sales personality, developing a streak of independence that might rub the other family members the wrong way. It's a good thing that she's not really clueing them in. As her success blossoms, the character begins to have complicated, well-handled reservations, centering most on whether the life of The Principle is really for her anymore. Ginnifer Goodwin's insatiable charisma develops well into a headstrong woman, who creates some of the season's noteworthy dramatic moments when she exerts herself over the two other sister-wives. It's a shame, though, that the plotline involving her and Bill's son Ben (Douglas Scott) ignites at this point; it reaches the summit that's been teased at with their flirtation, yet the explosion point and abrupt cascade downward that it receives leave something to be desired. Still, it's hard to deny the energy that Goodwin and Scott share, and their chemistry helps iron out wrinkles in the contrived scenario.
Like the other seasons of Big Love, the nine serial-bound episodes reach a hefty climax that ties all the plot threads together in a neat little bow, with curiosity hanging in the air at its conclusion. Alas, it all happens at the end of a long, mad road that'll likely turn away even those with a stronger stomach for the over-the-top, rustling together a fury of questions that's spearheaded by one particular inquiry: "What now?" Obviously I'll refrain from revealing the bombshells for those with a hint of curiosity over what happens, but there's something so false at the end of this finished product that it sullies the intimate structuring that adorns the series' earlier moments -- especially that of the endlessly-intriguing sister-wives and their rapport. But that's to be expected at the tail end of an almost soap-opera story arc, one that's extremely well-acted and moves along at a brisk pace but ultimately feels much more hollow and artificial than the series has proven itself capable of. Perhaps Bill creating his own church at the end of the third season might just be catharsis enough for the Henricksons.
Presented across three discs, Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season arrives from HBO/Warner Bros. in a cardboard box that houses three slim plastic cases. Inside, quotes from Bill, Barb, and Nicki adorn the left-hand side of the inner artwork, while a full family portrait of each of the three families cover the outer casing. An outer cardboard slipcase replicates the back and front of the side-loading package.
Video and Audio:
All nine episodes arrive in 1.78:1 widescreen-enhanced transfers, which suit the series' drama-based framing and close-ups fittingly. Some of the detail appears a bit flat and hazy, while some scenes have a harsh appearance that leaves it looking a bit artificial. Some sequences also have some muted contrast as well, though oftentimes it stays faithful to the cinematography's dusty intents. Most scenes, however, handle the depth and contrast of close-proximity shots capably, with rich black levels and pleasing, textural look about facial focuses. For its aims, everything looks rather pleasing in this standard-definition image.
Audio obviously retrains itself to the front of the sound stage for this series of Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. The rasp of Bill Paxton's voice hits lower-key bass and mid-range tones well, while the different types of female vocals stay in the alto range with fine clarity. A few sound effects, such as assorted gunfire and the sound of wheels grinding into gravel offer some semblance of dynamic special effects, while the persistently pulsating score taps into the lower-frequency range, continuing each episode's movement at a furious pace. French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 tracks are also available, while optional English, French, and Spanish
Each episode carries its own (very) brief Inside the Episode (16x9) snippet, most lasting roughly two minutes. Aside from Previous/Next On bits to play alongside each episode, that's it.
Instead of rediscovering the intimate center that once made its theatrics compelling, something needed after last year's chaos, Big Love's fourth season goes in the opposite direction by dialing up the onslaught of vigorous developments surrounding the Henrickson family. It starts with dropping Bill in the middle of a campaign for State Senate, a situation that already presents itself questionably, and piles on bursts of melodrama that ring false when compared to those of Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer's excellent previous seasons. Some might get surface-level satisfaction from seeing familiar characters engulfed in exploits around the Alby-run Juniper Creek, Frank and Lois' trips to Mexico, Nicki's ex-husband, and the casino, but it's hard to ignore that its carefully-composed weight has been lost in soapy bluster. Rent It.